OPINION: A once-in-a-decade opportunity to give self-regulation some ‘bite’

Adrian SargeantPlans to introduce lay members to the Institute of Fundraising’s standards committee are mere tinkering. Adrian Sargeant calls for a wholesale review of fundraising self-regulation and the creation of a new sector body to own fundraising’s professional standards.

 

I was greatly saddened by the Institute of Fundraising’s recently-announced decision to provide its standards committee with an independent chair and to seed additional lay representation on to the panel. I (obviously) have no difficulty with our profession being held to account by the public we serve, but the vehicle for doing that is the FRSB and not our professional standards committee.

In the advertising world, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) sets the Code of Advertising Practice and is populated by people who understand advertising and how it works. Their chair is effectively a spokesperson for the advertising sector and has a long and successful career on which to draw to be able to respond to media enquiries and occasional criticisms.

“The chair of the standards committee will effectively become a spokesperson for fundraising and if they can’t answer tough questions from the media or a minister (or get something wrong when they try) that could have very serious consequences for all of us.”

The Advertising Standards Authority – an independent body that is replete with the public representation – ensures that the system of regulation is made to operate in the public interest. It adjudicates all complaints received against the code and, where necessary, makes recommendations for areas of the code that require updating or re-writing. The advertising professionals on the Committee of Advertising Practice can then draw on their expertise to decide how best to give those recommendations life, in order to achieve the desired impact.

The fundamental principle here is that the profession of advertising sets the code and  decisions in respect of whether a given practice is acceptable or not are taken by an independent third party (in this case the ASA).

It is immensely sad that we cannot follow the tried and trusted approach adopted in a related profession. The ASA and the Code of Advertising Practice has served this country well for decades and no-one there is making recommendations for change.

“This is not the time to tinker with the membership of our various committees. This is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to get the regulation of fundraising right and install a regime that actually has some bite.”

So why have our Institute decided to have decisions about how fundraising should be practised taken (in part) by individuals who may know little about fundraising? I’ve been assured that the appointed individuals would be properly trained, but I suspect the correct word is actually ‘inducted’. You cannot communicate decades’ worth of fundraising experience in a few short hours of ‘training’.  And indeed, if ‘training’ is required at all, why not use a skilled professional who already has that expertise and so much more? It makes no logical sense. Ask yourself – would you want the professional standards in dentistry or accounting or even advertising to be set by people who were not experts in those fields? I suspect not. So what is different about fundraising?

The Institute have also argued that they will retain the final say on the code because changes recommended by the standards committee must still be approved by the IoF’s board of trustees. But it would be a brave board indeed who would take issue with an independent chair of standards: the ensuing publicity should they choose to resign over an IoF board decision would be immensely damaging. The reality is of course that this will not happen. By taking this step the IoF board will effectively hand over full control of standards to the newly-revised standards committee.

It also troubles me that the chair of that board will effectively become a spokesperson for fundraising and if they can’t answer tough questions from the media or a minister (or get something wrong when they try) that could have very serious consequences for all of us.

 

Three proposals to rebuild self-regulation

Fundamentally, this is not the time to tinker with the membership of our various committees. This is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to get the regulation of fundraising right and install a regime that actually has some bite.

We need:

1)     A Committee of Fundraising Practice – populated by knowledgeable individuals who can set and maintain the code.

2)     A properly-funded and independent FRSB to adjudicate against that code – which pulls into its remit all professional fundraising practice. To do this it should be funded by a small cut of Gift Aid in the same way as the ASA is funded by 0.1 per cent of all advertising revenues. In this way all fundraising charities would be included in the scheme and the FRSB would have enough of a budget to conduct its own monitoring operations just as the ASA currently do in the field of advertising. The ASA compliance surveys typically identify that around 97 per cent of all advertising is compliant with the industry code.

3)     A corollary to the Control of Misleading Advertisements Regulations 1988, which for the first time allowed the ASA to refer organisations that failed to cooperate with the self-regulatory scheme to the Secretary of State, who had powers to seek an injunction to ban the errant practices. This power has been rarely exercised as the threat of such action is usually enough to ensure compliance. The Control of Misleading Advertisements Regulations 1988 have now been replaced by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and those might usefully be amended to embrace fundraising within their remit.

We also need a fundamental review of our system of fundraising ethics, of the type that Rogare is already undertaking. How do we, or should we, balance the needs of the donor and the beneficiary? How should we take decisions about the appropriateness of a particular form of fundraising in the context of that debate? We need an underlying system of logic that can explain why we take issue with the emotion of guilt, but not sadness, and what exactly we mean by ‘unreasonable’ pressure or distress. This review needs to precede any re-write of the code, or one piecemeal system will be replaced by another.

The level of government interest in our sector has never been higher, so this must be the time to push for and achieve meaningful change that would benefit fundraisers, charities and the public alike. At the very least as a profession we should have a vision for the system of self-regulation we would like to see and a strategy for how exactly we are going to achieve it.

 

Further Reading:

Rogare’s director Ian MacQuillin explains in detail the flaws with the operation of the new standards committee.

Full details, so far, of Rogare’s thinking for a new normative theory of fundraising ethics.

 

Associate members

 

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